On concerns about MLB’s minor-league housing mandate

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MLB is going to mandate that teams provide housing for “certain” minor leaguers, news that was broken on Sunday by ESPN’s Jeff Passan and that we’ve already discussed in this space. However, as was pointed out on Monday, that’s about all we know: that piece mostly focused on the need for housing assistance and why, exactly, MLB has decided to reverse course on the issue now (the short version: they’re trying to appease players who are moving ever-closing to unionizing.) What we’ll focus on this time around, instead, is what the housing assistance should look like. It’s good to get these thoughts in order before the actual shape of things is revealed, so you already know what to look out for and be preemptively mad about.

Back in June, Beyond the Box Score’s Sheryl Ring brought up some legitimate concerns about MLB providing housing for minor-league players, having to do with landlord-tenant relationships, corporate housing, and more:

But a traded or released player with nowhere else to go could end up with an eviction on their court record or credit, making it essentially impossible for them to find housing in the future. Worse, a player may not want to report a problem in their unit, fearing it will hurt their career, or worse, result in that player being forced to leave the United States. This isn’t speculation; this already happens in other industries. We already see corporations forcing migrant workers to live in deplorable conditions in employer-provided housing unitswith “over half” of all such units cited for “black mold, raw sewage and pest infestations were among the most serious violations. Other common violations ranged from broken doors and windows to defective plumbing and electrical wiring.” Of course, “[o]wners of migrant housing argue that it is difficult to keep housing in good shape because workers are constantly moving in and out, and inspection agencies say they can only do so much with the staffs and laws they have.” It’s all too easy to see how quickly this could happen to team-provided housing for minor leaguers. And, frankly, I see it every day.

So in reality, we don’t want teams to be their minor leaguers’ landlords. It just gives a corporation even more power over the lives of young kids who already have far too little control in their relationship with the team.

My goal here is not to dismiss these very real issues and concerns, especially since Ring is an experienced lawyer with a history of defending evicted tenants, and certainly knows the territory better than I do. The key thing here for me is to know what the pitfalls are heading in, and to fight back against what Ring described as possibilities and likelihoods. MLB has already had to concede multiple times over the past couple of years to minor-league players — players who aren’t even unionized — because the public became aware of the horrible treatment of them, and MLB feared both backlash from fans and the potential organizing of minor leaguers. So long as organizations continue to exist that allow players to have a voice for their concerns and their problems, and the media continues to tackle the issues of these living and working conditions as they have been the past few years now, then any new issues introduced by providing housing should be surmountable, as well.

One workaround would be for teams to simply cover the costs of housing, like the San Francisco Giants were already doing with subsidies for their higher-level minor leaguers, but leave actually finding a place to live to the players. The players, according to Passan, don’t want to deal with the headache of finding a place to live, however, especially since promotions and losing roommates to promotions and releases and the like make an already difficult situation — finding a place that will lease for part of the year — tougher. This might be what makes the most sense as a defense for what the corporate housing issues Ring described, though: if players are given money to spend on housing, and they give that money to a landlord or a hotel, they aren’t going to be in a position to be kicked out of that space if they’re cut. The situation might be different in a corporate housing scenario: if teams decide to spend money building some kind of dormitory for minor-league players, as the owners of that dorm and the entity signing a players’ checks, they might just throw them out the day they’re cut from the roster.

On the other hand, if there are checks in place to keep MLB teams from making someone homeless after cutting them, then maybe this wouldn’t be a problem, whether it’s allowing the player to continue to live in the space for a certain amount of time, or temporarily finding housing for them elsewhere, until they can head back home or end up with a different team. This is an optimistic fix, though, given MLB teams still don’t want to spend a dime more on minor-league players than they have to, and covering for someone who is no longer even under the employ the team would certainly fit into the “don’t have to” box for these organizations. It’s the kind of thing that could be bargained in if the players had a seat at the table as a union, but they do not. Which is just one more reason that, even though helping out with housing is a positive, it’s certainly not a total fix, and is no replacement for simply paying players a living wage.

I’m concerned, as Ring was, about MLB finding a new way to tie the players’ security to their employment, especially at this time when a living wage isn’t present. I still think providing housing is a significant win and represents progress in what is going to continue being a fight against MLB for years to come, but that’s the thing. Whatever solution MLB presents here will be better than the previous setup, but it won’t be perfect. Additional advocating, additional stories, additional players willing to lend their voices to the chorus will be needed in order to get this housing situation to where it should be. Even before you get into the issues Ring brought up, there’s simply the fact that this housing assistance is being provided for “certain” minor-league players, instead of just all of them. We don’t even know anything about what the plan is and we already know of at least one non-hypothetical issue with it!

So, housing assistance is fraught for sure, rife with the possibility of new kinds of exploitation, but even getting it is step one toward a better future for these players. MLB doesn’t want to solve any of the issues minor-league players are facing overnight, because the goal is not to solve these problems: it’s to pacify. Considering MiLB’s players remain unorganized, they’re still making some remarkable headway in the fight for better conditions: they just have a lot more headway to make, is all, and will have brand new housing concerns to address once the new mandate is implemented, too.

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